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Friday, March 16, 2012

Facts are stubborn things...Mike Daisey, Apple and the Truth

In a previous article I promised to write why I believe Mike Daisey was dead wrong in his criticism of Apple and Foxconn. Interestingly, it has recently come to light that Mr. Daisy fabricated many of the supporting facts in his monologue that criticized Apple for purportedly utilizing underage workers and unsafe conditions.
Before I go on, I should mention that I met Mr. Daisy while I was at Colby College in Maine. We were both college students there. However, we took different paths in life: I pursued a career in law, Mr. Daisy pursued a career performing arts.
I do remember plays that Mr. Daisy was in at Colby. I was in fact quite impressed with his skills. Having watched some excerpts of his monologues I can see that his skill has done nothing but increase.
However, I often wondered about his attitude, his overall perspective. In watching these monologues and reading about Mr. Daisy I became more and more perplexed by his attitude and by what he has written and said. He may be a skillful performer, but what about being a truly educated and intellectually curious person?
But let's take a step back and look at China and what China has actually accomplished in the past few decades. The late 1950s was a time of great turmoil in China. So much turmoil that this resulted in mass starvation of the most horrible kind. There were even reports of cannibalism. China had no legal system speak of and was organized in a very anti-capitalist fashion.
However in the 1980s, and especially in the 1990s, things began to change. A much more capitalist society was allowed to exist. China has come very far since the time of the famine. When one looks at the context of a factory such as those operated by Foxconn in the context of was going on a few decades before one can see the incredible progress that has been made. Mr. Daisy seems intent on cheapening this accomplishment. The Chinese translator Mike Daisey used, Cathy, stated to "This American Life" in a recent retraction, "As a Chinese, I think it's better if he can tell the American people the truth. I hope people know the real China." This American Life
If one looks at the United States, it took quite a long time for industrialization to progress to the current level of worker safety and rights. I am from New Hampshire originally. In New Hampshire, there are still a few mill buildings that remain from the era of the great factories in New Hampshire. Many of these places were prototypical company towns, where there really was child labor and where there were serious safety problems and few workers rights. In fact, the factories often created situations that put the workers in so much debt to the factories that the workers were very much bound to them. However, New Hampshire, like the rest of the country, progressed, but this did not come over the course of a few years or even a few decades. Simply stating that we shouldn't use a certain country or that we can just suddenly and magically have exactly the same level of workers rights and safety as in the US without a progression of technology, society, and the legal system, is a completely wrong idea. For there to be workers rights, the technology must exist to be able to build safe factories. The technology must exist also to build quality products that people want to buy to be able to fund the building of the safe factories. Moreover, the workers themselves must be able to produce and have the skill and ability at the correct level so that they can justify those wages and that cost. Otherwise, no one will buy the products and there will be no money for any of this. If you try to force people to buy products that they don't want or try to force upon societies products that are vastly overpriced, then you will take away from other aspects of that society and everything will suffer. This is why for example forcing banks to make loans that are not financially sound is a bad idea even if you really want everyone to own a home. Similarly, forcing products to be artificially overpriced, or forcing people to buy products that are poor quality, will result in disaster for society. China does not need to return to famine.
This is not to say that there should be no oversight. Nor is this to say that there should be no protests (there were massive protests for workers rights in New Hampshire) nor is this an argument against progress. Again, there was progress in US, but it was over time and as the legal and economic system developed. Even then, there were setbacks in New Hampshire, as a large mill there, one of the largest manufacturing centers in the world, collapsed in 1935 after a worker's strike (and after much of the money had been bled out of the company), and never reopened. However, the legal system there was able to evolve to protect workers, and the economic structure in the US is far stronger today, even with recent setbacks.
Apple should be commended for being at the forefront of pushing for safe factories. Apple should be commended for having as much transparency as it does. I don't see how Apple has not been a very positive force in the development of processes and procedures for safety in China.
However, I saw something fascinating today in Daring Fireball, one of my favorite blogs: The New York Times had the following regard Mike Daisey:
He admits that he once fabricated a story because it “connected” with the audience. After telling this lie over and over again, it became so integrated into the architecture of his piece that it became impossible to remove or, perhaps, to distinguish from what really happened. Mr. Daisey seems embarrassed by this confession, but he also pursues the issue further. Is lying acceptable when in service of a greater truth? What does truth mean in the context of art?

New York Times--Jason Zinomen
But isn't this the problem? When art becomes a lie? When a lie becomes the greater truth?
Wasn't that the problem with the sea of people waiving their little red books in China during the cultural revolution? Wasn't the problem that Chairman Mao was not delivering the promised progress and development, and instead masking it in a greater lie?
Isn't the truth of economic progress in China better than the lies of Mike Daisey? Shouldn't we expect better?
If there is no truth than a person like Mike Daisey can escape all the hard work that it really takes to understand complex issues like Chinese history. For him to go to China with no understanding of language and culture and expect to truly be understood by his translator is preposterous. I have lived amongst Asian culture for many years. The way that I am able to sometimes avoid being misunderstood is to always understand I am being misunderstood. Even then, I am often misunderstood. Chinese language is constructed very differently from English. Chinese cultures are different than Western cultures. So to assume that with no study whatsoever you can understand the rich, complex, and often quite intellectual culture of China enough to correctly analyze a complex situation is silly. My wife is Thai (well, 75% Thai and a quarter Chinese) but has lived in the US since the 1990s. However, there are still cultural differences between us that took me a long time to understand. For example, if I ask her "You don't want to go with me, do you?" she might answer "No, I don't". However, what she means by that may be "no I don't have a problem with coming". You have to know to follow up to get the correct meaning (and have the patience not to get upset until you do understand).
However, in this case it appears to be worse than that and have actually crossed the line into fabrication, in addition to the cultural misunderstandings.
If people like Mike Daisey are allowed to get away with this then there can never be progress since there can never be truth. What motivation will Apple ever have to push for change if it's not only never going to be good enough but worse never recognized at all? All of their hard work can then easily be shot down by a person who made no effort whatsoever to study the situation, who made no effort to become educated.
I will end with two of my favorite quotes of all time, from John Adams:
It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, "whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection," and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.
― John Adams

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
― John Adams

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